Cristiano Ronaldo sparked a flurry of big-money transfers to Saudi Arabia over the past year, with the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema and Sadio Mane following him to the Middle East. Plenty have hit the ground running but several more have not enjoyed their time since leaving Europe’s big leagues, and Express Sport has run the rule over football’s biggest stars in Saudi Arabia.
Former Manchester United striker Ronaldo has ended 2023 with more goals than any other player in world football, hitting the back of the net 54 times in 58 appearances. He has outscored Erling Haaland, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe and shown little signs of slowing down at 38 for Al-Nassr.
He is the Saudi Pro League’s top scorer before their mid-season break and appears to have been rejuvenated by his move a year ago, insisting that more and more European stars want to join him in the region.
“I’m happy because when I made the decision to come here nobody believed what I said,” Ronaldo told SSC Sport. “But that is the past. It doesn’t matter anymore, the most important is that the league has grown and that players want to come because they know the league is competitive and the whole world is watching now.”
Not everyone has enjoyed the start to life in Saudi that Ronaldo has, however, as Jordan Henderson’s Liverpool exit came with plenty of criticism. He was slated after moving to a country that criminalises same-sex relationships after the England man had been praised for being such a strong ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
On the pitch, Henderson’s time with Steven Gerrard at Al-Ettifaq has not gone as planned either. They are without a win in nine league games and Gerrard has called for more quality incomings in January after being unimpressed with his squad.
Neymar was one of the Saudi Pro League’s flagship signings after luring him away from Paris Saint-Germain. But just a few games into his Al-Hilal career, he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
There is no set timeline for his return from yet another serious injury, as he could be kept out until next season – which would also sideline him for Brazil’s Copa America campaign this summer.
Allan Saint-Maximin was one of the more controversial summer transfers, moving from a Newcastle team owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund to Saudi giants Al-Ahli.
He was stretchered off during his new side’s 3-1 win over Al-Wehda in October in distressing scenes, but avoided a serious injury and has helped the team propel themselves to third place in the league alongside Riyad Mahrez and Gabri Veiga.
Mane has been Ronaldo’s co-star at Al-Nassr and the pair have created a formidable partnership together. He has scored eight goals in 18 league games with a further four assists, as they along with Talisca, Otavio and Seko Fofana are leading the club’s title push.
Al-Nassr are seven points behind rivals Al-Hilal at the top of the table but will be relieved that their break coincides with the Africa Cup of Nations and Mane is unlikely to miss any of their upcoming fixtures.
An influx of Liverpool heroes headed to Al-Ettifaq with Gerrard, including Georginio Wijnaldum who endured a difficult few years at PSG and Roma once he left Anfield in 2021.
However, despite the 33-year-old being a mainstay in Gerrard’s team, the team’s investment is yet to pay off and Al-Ettifaq are languishing in mid-table.
Chelsea opted to sell several of their stars to Saudi Arabia in order to further fund a spending spree under Mauricio Pochettino as Edouard Mendy headed to Al-Ahli and was replaced by Brighton’s Robert Sanchez.
He made a howler on his debut, gifting Al-Hazm a goal before his blushes were spared by Roberto Firmino who scored a hat-trick on Al-Ahli’s way to a 3-1 win and only league leaders Al-Hilal have conceded fewer goals than Mendy’s side.
Fulham received a club-record fee from Al-Hilal for Aleksandar Mitrovic thought to be over £40m and it has proven to be money well spent as the Serb has spearheaded their title charge with 17 goals in as many games.
Only Ronaldo has scored more goals than Mitrovic this season in Saudi Arabia and with Al-Hilal seven points clear at the top of the table, they have their big-money striker to thank should they lift the title at the end of the season.
Al-Ittihad had hoped to reunite Fabinho with his former Liverpool team-mate Mohamed Salah after the Brazilian’s arrival in the Middle East, but a move failed to materialise and the Brazilian instead linked up with N’Golo Kante and Benzema.
He has often been forced to play at centre-back and has enjoyed a stellar season, but made headlines when he was sent off on Boxing Day for slapping Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr team-mate Otavio. He was subsequently sent off and Al-Ittihad lost 5-2 to one of their closest rivals.
2022 Ballon d’Or winner Benzema was one of the early movers to Saudi Arabia in the summer, pocketing a reported £86m-a-year at Al-Ittihad. He has scored nine goals and provided five assists since his arrival, but not all has gone to plan.
French outlet L’Equipe claim that his own fans have dubbed him ‘Ben-Hazima’ – which in Arabic translates to ‘the son of defeat’. Al-Ittihad have already lost more games than they did last season and the former Real Madrid man will hope that he can turn the team around in the second half of the campaign.
Manchester City lost one of their key men when Mahrez opted to leave for Al-Ahli after winning the treble, but the Algerian winger was keen to move closer to his homeland and although his side are 13 points off top spot he does not regret the transfer.
“This last year, I couldn’t say it went badly, but I have a bit of this feeling of unfinished business,” he said after being reduced to a rotation option before the Champions League final.
“I was offered four years in Saudi Arabia, in a Muslim country where I can definitely protect my family. There was also a new challenge, and a new project. So, I decided to leave, it wasn’t a big deal.
“Txiki Begiristain [City’s technical director] really wanted me to stay, and even Pep Guardiola. They made it clear to me. I weighed the pros and cons and finally I decided to leave. I don’t regret it, I’m happy to be here.”
One player reportedly unhappy with life in Saudi Arabia, however, is Firmino. The Brazilian forward left Liverpool as a club icon but is reportedly already looking to quit on Al-Ahli just a few months after heading to the Middle East.
talkSPORT claim that he is growing frustrated with his role in the team and has not ruled out a return to the Premier League, with Sheffield United one of the clubs said to be courting the 32-year-old before Paul Heckingbottom was sacked and replaced by Chris Wilder.
Wolves opted to cash in on their midfield general Ruben Neves in a move that shocked European football, as one of the Premier League’s stars decided to leave England for Saudi Arabia in the prime of his career.
He has impressed at Al-Hilal to the point that he was linked with a move back to the Premier League with Newcastle following Sandro Tonali’s suspension for breaching betting rules in Italy, but the Portuguese playmaker publicly turned down their interest in favour of sticking with Al-Hilal.
The final few years of N’Golo Kante’s Chelsea career were plagued by injury, but he has been able to stay fit since his move to Al-Ittihad and played a key role alongside Fabinho and Benzema.
He has also been showing off his goalscoring prowess, firing home a volley from the edge of the box during their 3-0 Club World Cup win over New Zealand giants Auckland City.
Manchester City lost another of Guardiola’s key players with Aymeric Laporte teamed up with Ronaldo at Al-Nassr and the Spanish centre-back has similarly been enjoying life in the Middle East, but recently had a pointed message for the club’s fans and referenced his old team.
“When I was in Manchester City, we were not achieving clean sheets, and this football does not always come out with clean sheets,” he said. “I want to talk to the Al Nassr fans and explain to them that we cannot get a clean sheet in every match.”